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SMa.r.t. Column: The Main Pain

Visiting Main St. several times each day of what was to be a test trial of closure to thru traffic revealed seemingly little increase in foot traffic, and not much activity in the middle of the street where some tables and benches were set up.  The restaurants and bars seemed to have been busy with their, mostly normal, summer beach business. Even during the Sunday Farmer’s Market hours, there did not appear to be a noticeable uptick in users within the closed to traffic sections. It appeared to be normal thru-traffic of cars and busses being rerouted around the closed section to Nielsen, but with those who came to stay looking for a place to park causing some back-ups. This was referred to as a ‘pilot program’, try it out and see if it works, with seemingly little input from the immediately impacted residents and businesses. 

In 1980, years after the P.O.P pier had burned down, Main Street had a need to be revitalized as it had, to a large degree, slipped into a shoddy business district and was struggling to rejuvenate. At that time, businesses on the street joined with local residents to analyze what was right, and what was wrong that needed to be corrected. As a member of that diverse group of stakeholders, we were joined by an assigned city staff planner, and for the next year and a half or so worked closely together to develop the first Main Street plan. 

That effort resulted in new zoning ordinances that guided a successful renewal of Main Street that we all benefited from for many years. As time always does evolve change, it becomes important to reassess what works and what doesn’t, and there was, in the early 1990s, another study, and adjustments were made to keep Main Street viable. Access, traffic, and parking were the principal items of focus.

The ensuing years saw the city council make a major shift in tourism and development policies. Massive building programs evolved, property values increased, and with that rents began to escalate.  As a result of escalating rents our community has lost many ‘mom & pop’ businesses, and, combined with on-line shopping, and the impact of Covid during the past year, we are seeing a tremendous increase in the number of empty storefronts and office space. And not just on Main St.  So what to do? Without a city-wide master plan there seems to be only a city mindset of piecemeal planning. A haphazard “try-and-see” approach without much, if any, evaluation. And that seems to be what the Main Street closure is all about. 

When the parkletts (enclosed sidewalk extensions with seating) were installed a couple years ago, it removed accessibility as it removed parking from the street. Removing parking, removes customers or, at the least, puts their cars in motion looking for a place to park so they can access the businesses that need them to stay viable and operating. It isn’t that the parklets in and of themselves are a bad idea, but one needs to weigh the loss of access vs. the benefit. How they are designed and integrated into the street is what is critical.  And that brings us to the decision of closing Main Street without analysis of cause and effect. 

So closure came and went, with a whimper. Whimpers, mostly from the non-food and drinking establishments that suffered economic losses due to the street closure for what was called a “pilot” program.  Sad to say this ‘pilot program’ “bought the farm” and “crashed and burned”. At least that is my impression. Feel the pain?

But one needs to have more than just a cursory impression, so I came back to Main St the following weekend to visit some of the non-bar/restaurant shops to hear their actual experiences and the impact that the street closure may have had on them.  Certainly not a scientific analysis, but speaking with owners and customers of several of the shops, both within the closed off section as well as the open street portion, revealed a consensus of “please do not do that again.“ 

  • One shop owner told me their business was down almost 25%.  Another told me, and I know it’s anecdotal, that for the first time in ‘can’t remember when’ there had been shoplifting in their store. 
  • Another explained how the street closure, in addition to the lost on-street parking, caused the loss of parking in lots only accessible from within the closed off section and therefore, in addition to cutting off customer access, the city effectively confiscated the usability of those properties without compensation or permission. Analysis of closing the street most assuredly would have raised a flag on that issue.  
  • Another business owner, outside of the closed area made a point of stating how they had to fight the city to remove k-rails that removed parking in front of their business (not a restaurant/bar, and no parklett there) and expressed quite strongly that had the k-railsl not been removed they did not believe their business would have survived. ‘They also said the street closure did nothing to help their business. 
  • One older customer, a long time local resident, overhearing the owner and I talking, interjected with a comment about how they rely on BBB and the negative impact it had on their normal use and movement on the street. 

The following are email comments that I received during and immediately following the street closure event:

 “Scooters are piled up on the sidewalk at Hill where a sign says “Dismount Zone”.  Almost all of the seating areas in the street are empty, and there are a few people walking along the street, and one woman on an exercise mat stretching. Not too many vehicles on the street as yet, but are diverted to Nielsen. 

There is no “there” there, and a branch bank even chose to close its doors to their normal Saturday operations over concerns there would be little opportunity for police to reach them in a timely manner in the event there was an incident.”

“ I’m at Lula’s now.  Wait staff say that averaging the two days may be less than a normal weekend.  There is no energy on the street.  It took a while to get a parking spot due to decreased parking.  Restaurants are doing much better than non-food enterprises. All-in-all, this seems to create more losers than winners. Of course, this does not include the impact on surrounding neighborhoods from the diverted traffic.”

“We walked to Main St. and stayed there from 10:30 am – 1:00 pm, ate brunch, and “toured” the surrounding areas as well. First, I was not impressed with the overall setup and the outdoor seating; it was tacky and looked like a low-end encampment! Numerous businesses were still closed, and there was plenty of space everywhere. I cannot say enough about the shabby appearance of the tables, chairs, fake grass, and seating areas in general, there were a couple of exceptions only. In general, the concept as implemented today lowers the image there. There should be a code of design and approval standards stipulated that would serve the area, the concept, and the business much better. The concrete barricade curbs were all decoratively painted, which was the only nice cohesive element. Of course, I’m speaking as a resident, and I am aesthetically sensitive, but perhaps visitors could care less! …

I didn’t see the police or a security presence of any kind on Main St.

The bottom line is, if I were a tourist, I wouldn’t go to Main St more than once. I spoke to a few Tourists there, and they were unimpressed as well. If this concept were to move forward, Santa Monica should address appearances there. There is no middle ground; if you are going to do it, do it right or not at all.” 

As an active resident and architect in Ocean Park (OP) for the past 45 years, I received no notification from Ocean Park Association (OPA) of the proposal though was aware thru other sources.  My understanding is that the genesis of this idea came from a new OPA board member that only recently moved to OP.  Maybe he wasn’t happy with the “Dogtown” he found. There is now a ‘survey’ underway via a ”Survey Monkey“ questionnaire put out there by OPA. But without real sampling rigor, no useful insights will result.  

If there is any value to the concept of closing off this major north-south artery, there can be little doubt that there will be impact on the residents, on traffic circulation in the neighborhood and to downtown, on parking, accessibility, and business survival.  That requires more analysis and stakeholder participation than what this closure process has offered.  I don’t think a weighted Survey Monkey does justice to any of the stakeholders involved.  

True stakeholder partnership in this iconic neighborhood has occurred in the past, creating the Main Street we have known, and love, and any reimagining of this beach town asset deserves nothing less today.

Bob Taylor, Architect, AIA for SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc L. Verville M.B.A., CPA (inactive); Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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